January 24, 2012

Cornell Expresses Concern About High-Risk Drinking

Print More

On the second Thursday of the school year, a group of freshmen gathered in a North Campus dormitory to drink before leaving for a party.

“Me and another friend were going shot for shot,” one of the students recalled. Ten shots of liquor later, the student slumped down on a hill by Baker Hall, where a police officer found him inebriated and requested a medical transport.

“My [Blood Alcohol Content] was 0.178. I fell asleep in the ambulance, woke up at Cayuga Medical [Center] at 6 the next morning and took a cab back to North [Campus],” the student said. “The cop gave me a J.A. ticket. I didn’t even know he did that until I found it in my pocket.”

The experience of this freshman — who was granted anonymity because his actions were illegal — may be part of a growing trend of high-risk behavior that has led University administrators, student leaders and even Collegetown landlords to express concern over a culture of excessive drinking.

“My first reaction, every time I read one of these cases, is concern and fear for the health and safety for these students,” Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88 said. “Some of the blood alcohol content levels I see are high enough that students could die and it scares me. … I really worry about the culture of binge drinking, hard alcohol and pregaming.”

The four quarter system implemented by the University in August 2011 barred freshmen from attending open events in the first half of the semester and fraternities from serving alcohol to them in the second half. Since the Interfraternity Council adopted the policy, administrators have worried that drinking has been displaced from on campus fraternities to Collegetown properties.

Additionally, city residents, speaking at a Dec. 13 Collegetown Neighborhood Council meeting, said Cornell students have become increasingly belligerent in recent years — vandalizing properties, kicking holes in walls and participating in fistfights around the neighborhood.

While city officials such as Alderperson Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd) insisted that “behaviors have been far worse this year,” statistics from the Cornell University Police Department indicate only moderate increases in calls requesting medical transports.

Between Aug. 1 and Dec. 1, 2011, CUPD logged 230 calls, 73 of which were alcohol-related, according to Deputy Chief David Honan. The number of calls police received in 2010 was similar to the number from 2011, though in 2009, police received just 182 calls.

In response to what it perceived as an uptick in drinking, CUPD Chief Kathy Zoner said that campus police stepped up its patrols and increased its vigilance on alcohol-related incidents last semester.

“We’ve been working with Gannett, student services, Greeks and athletics in a very broad based manner,” she said. “We want to look into what may be causing the increase in numbers — sometimes it’s just an increase in reporting, but sometimes it’s more than that.”

The Greek Community: ‘On Thin Ice’

Since the quarter system — which breaks the academic year into four periods of different rules for freshmen with regards to greek events — went into effect, Travis Apgar, associate dean of students for sorority and fraternity affairs, said it is unclear if it has had an impact on the frequency of medical transports. Still, Apgar said that survey data has shown that some chapters are continuing to serve alcohol to freshmen both on campus and in off-campus annexes.

“We know that there’s been a high percentage of freshmen students who have consumed alcohol in large quantities off campus, whether it was in apartments or what they believe were fraternity annexes,” he said.

Dan Freshman ’12, former president of the Interfraternity Council, echoed concerns that the quarter system, with its restrictions on event attendance, created a “difficult transition period for not only the Greek system but also the entire campus with the change in how social events are happening on campus.”

The freshman transported in September described himself as being “just one of many,” claiming, “If there had been an open party, I probably wouldn’t have drank at my dorm.”

Besides students, fraternities themselves have seemed to struggle with the new regulations as well, as more houses faced judicial reviews concerning alcohol infractions last year, Steven Wald ’12, former IFC vice president for judicial affairs, said.

Less than a year after an incident at Sigma Alpha Epsilon led to the death of George Desdunes ’13, Cornell revoked its recognition of Tau Kappa Epsilon on Jan. 19, following reports that a highly intoxicated freshman, left in his dormitory after a recruitment dinner, was hospitalized.

“In some respects, a lot of what we’ve done in the past year has been in reaction to George’s death, but long before that happened, safety has been our paramount concern,” Wald said. “For the last year, it has felt like we are on very thin ice.”

The Ripple Effect of More Calls

Though the number of calls made across campus increased, one residential advisor, Neil Lewis Jr. ’13, said that, in fact, he made significantly fewer calls this year than he did in his first year as an R.A.

Still, he described the judgment calls involved in medical transport incidents as creating, at their hardest, “a stressful situation.”

“Trying to balance the line of figuring out if [students] are actually okay versus if they actually need help is very stressful, because by calling, they’ll be going to the hospital; they have to pay for that; you don’t know what’s going on between them and their family,” Lewis said. “At the same time, at the end of the day, I’d rather make sure everyone is safe.”

Lewis, like other residential advisors, prepared for his job and learned about alcohol safety by training with groups like CUPD and EMS, learning the “two-minute rule”: call EMS if someone cannot stay awake for more than two minutes. He said that although he worries about his residents when they become sick, he is there to support them through their transition to college life.

“They’re obviously going to be experimenting; it’s a part of life … and I guess it’s sometimes difficult to watch them make mistakes. But they have to make mistakes to learn and you have to be there to help them,” he said.

Despite Lewis’ experience, some students corroborated the perception that restrictions on attending open events — which were partially enforced by ID scanners — pushed freshmen to drink at increasingly dangerous levels in their dormitories, a situation they said was riskier than drinking at open events.

“It’s probably more dangerous, because you’re just in a dorm, and you can’t do anything except drink and drink more,” Keith Rayburn ’15 told The Sun in November. “If you’re going out, at least you’re not just drinking — you’re dancing, meeting people and have more motivation to not get as drunk because you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of a bunch of people.”

IFC leaders said that although they have maintained that the University’s policy changes have exacerbated unsafe drinking in dormitories, administrators have refused to accept several alternative proposals they put forth.

“We hope that resident advisors … can tackle this issue, as it is their direct responsibility moving forward,” Freshman wrote in an email in December.

CUEMS Logs More Calls

Jacob Solomon ’12, director of the Cornell University Emergency Medical Service, said that CUEMS received more calls requesting a response to medical emergencies this year.

Though he noted that these figures do not necessarily translate into the number of medical transports, as “a lot of people call for things they don’t need to go to the hospital for by ambulance,” Solomon said that CUEMS “definitely feels busy.”

Solomon said the swell in the number of calls could be linked to particularly stressful periods in the semester.

“I can’t speak for the patients that we see, but what I’ve noticed myself is that if it’s a heavy exam week or a period when students are busy academically, there’s a subset of Cornell that deals with it by going out and drinking,” he said. “It seems like those weekends are when we get more calls.”

Administration: ‘Call For Help’

Grant, a J.A., said these trends should be interpreted carefully, noting that more calls do not necessarily mean that there is an increase in drinking.

“A couple of years ago, there was a spike in emergency health calls and people were concerned about it, but when Gannett looked at the stats, they found that students weren’t drinking more than in the past,” she said, adding that more people were calling for help. “That was a good thing — helping students get the medical help they need.”

Still, Grant said she had the impression that her office received more alcohol-related referrals this year.

Noting that there are many educational campaigns and programs available on safe drinking, including an online alcohol education course incoming Cornell students take before arriving on campus, Grant said that she does not think unsafe behavior stems from ignorance.

“Students are well aware that it’s illegal to drink under the age of 21. I don’t think the issue is a lack of knowledge; I think there are other factors at play, [such as] peer pressure, experimentation and bad habits,” she said.

She stressed the importance of calling for help in medical emergencies.

“When in doubt, make the decision to call 911 or get in touch with an R.A. Any negative ramifications you could see are far less relevant than a person possibly dying,” she said. “We take medical amnesty really seriously; our main concern is health.”

Original Author: Akane Otani